big sur by tj worthington
Outside the box. How do I think outside the box in my art forms? Box. I remember a conversation with two musicians. They were looking for how to make music "outside the box." I was addressed for a thought on how to operate outside the box. My answer came automatically, though it sounded flippant to my ear, yet when I heard it, it answered my own questioning, "Don't have a box." It pretty much ended the subject in the conversation as it stumped all of us. It's the only way I can imagine thinking outside the box, musically, visually, or by mind, writing. I tend to have no problem with the box. I paint entirely inside the box, from realism to abstraction to sculpture. Everything I do has been done before. I look at the visual arts from Egyptian times to present, especially the 20th Century; everything has been covered from Impressionism to Conceptualism. Suppose I want to reduce everything visually to its most common element, like a square. Since Kazimir Malevich, hundreds of artists have painted squares. Malevich thought outside the box a hundred years ago. Outside the box, the avant-garde was the thread that ran through the art of the 20th Century. It drove the 20th Century. The only way I can see me painting "outside the box," post-20th Century, is like Marcel Duchamp did a century ago, play chess after painting the Mona Lisa of the Age. Or maybe, have a good idea and never do anything toward manifesting it. Just think it and forget it. I have an idea that's been done too. I'm still inside the box. Take my courthouse boxes for example. The visual refers to abstract expressionism and minimalism, seeming opposites fixed together as one. Consciously. Inside the box. A case could be made for feeding a carrot to a donkey as a "happening," or a temporary gesture without video record or audience, known to nobody but me, ever. That's inside the box, too.
I believe for myself, I see "the box" as all-inclusive as the universe. Outside my idea of the box is unknown nothingness. This means I am compelled to search in unknown nothingness for something in existence, even a thought. It aint there to be found. Where art in the realm of existence is concerned, the box I see is so vast that it is not a box anymore. A Zen monk's ink drawing of a grasshopper is still inside the box. A Tibetan temple with every surface sculpted and painted in the brightest colors ever, is still inside the box, quite literally. As a visual artist, I see that anything I can find that is "new" to the world of art won't be noticed as such anyway, especially a crayon drawing by a two year old. I have to look at my own box, what would be outside my own box, my own experience, my own visual expression. Several of the things I've made nobody ever sees. I do them to amuse myself. Like one just finished. The base is a block of wood three and a half inches square, the sawed-off end of a 4x4, treated with Tung oil. I used it to test printing with children's blocks, thinking I was going to paint the block of wood. I liked the marks and left them. Atop it sits half an old brick, a square, so old it grew a black patina. Its the same size as the block of wood, just not quite as tall. Atop it sits a chunk of cement I found at a building site where somebody laying cinderblock evidently lost a trowel load of cement that fell to the ground in a pile. The underside of it carries the print of the grass it landed on. I brought it home, soaked it in a half and half solution of latex robin's egg blue with water for probably a month. I wanted it to stain the cement, not put a coat of paint on it. Later I went over the rough parts with white oil-based paint. It looks to my eye like a splash in the ocean where the water splashes among big shoreline rocks, like Big Sur in my mind. Hail yeah, maybe I'll call it Big Sur. Done. I'm wanting it to be a still splash. May add a few more touches of white. Like good sculpture, it is beautiful from all 360 degrees around it. That was my goal, and I feel like it came to be. Every element of it scrap building materials. It will probably never leave the house. Around here, the criticism would stand a good chance of being something on the order of: Why, he aint done nothin but paint a ol' chunk of cement, heck I could a-done that, and he's askin what for it? (anything above a yard sale price). Honey, if I had a nickel for ever chunk of cement I seen a-layin on the ground, Lord have mercy. Don't artists make nothin pretty no more? This feller needs his head examined if he thinks I'm dumb enough to take somethin like that for art. Whatever y'wanna call it, it belongs in the landfill.
He's had his head examined and found it wanting. Nothing to do but go on ahead with what he's got to do with. By this time in the life, after the first half in absence of self-esteem, I find I have aligned self with who I am, the destination of a lifetime moving in this direction. I owe this viewing to experience in mountain culture, where just about everybody has low self-esteem, raised being told how stupid you are. It is an issue so common in mountain culture that rising above it, finding one's own self-esteem, often through skills, is equally common in the culture. The most outside the box experience in my life was moving to the mountains, committing. No turning around. Get used to it. All I knew about the Blue Ridge was Walker Evans and Doris Ullman photographs of Appalachian poverty. I never found anything like what they portrayed. They were in coal mining regions and other places. They sought the poverty. We have poverty here, though it is largely the older folks, and the young people who can't afford to move someplace else, who want to live their lives close to family, in a trailer with kids, both working dehumanizing minimum wage jobs in poverty, looked down on by everybody driving a new car. Older mountain people living in a brick house with central heat they earned by a lifetime working for the man as electrician, carpenter, factory, often were raised in a little house with half a dozen or more kids, a house that by today's standard is a shack. They didn't know they were poor. They had each other and were rich in the heart. This is how they tell it. Some of the houses continue to stand, homes to young couples who can't afford trailer payments. I'm in a culture of people whose lives are characterized by rising above, without denial. Not so much rising above and away from their people, which many do and go someplace else, as rising above one's own inability to believe in oneself, even to love oneself. The women are better at it than the men, though the men are getting it too. The people around me rise-above inside themselves on a regular basis, as do I. I came to what I took for wilderness for peace of mind to do just that, to rise above my own self-bondage. I'm like the circus elephant raised from a baby tethered to a stake in the ground. It grows up and never questions that it could easily pull the stake out of the ground, having learned in childhood it cannot.
The art form I am working with now, daily writing, I cannot call outside the box in any way. It is basic American prose and I don't want to write "better" than that. Again, after the 20th Century, there isn't much I could invent that hasn't been done multiple times. I can't out-write Rimbaud or Berryman. Even thinking a work of art and forgetting it has been done. Again, the box I see is so vast as to include everything, a sponge like rock music. Rock absorbs every kind of music all the way around the world. In that way, it has become the universal music. Its high energy is the rhythm of our time all around the globe. Pink Floyd could fill the biggest auditorium anywhere, and charging outrageous prices. I write inside the box insofar as I don't write like the Marquis de Sade or Charles Bukowski. The closest to outside the box my writing is, or could ever be, is indifference to seeking a goal through my writing beyond the benefits of journaling. Seeking the benefits of journaling was done by trying it and seeing what benefit, if any, comes through the experience, within. No benefit comes to me from outside except in comment feedback, which I value. Feedback is important in every art form. I don't want ads and I don't want any money involvement. They distract. This thinking was kinda outta the box half a century ago. I like to dive within and search for whatever is at the moment. I like following stream of consciousness James Joyce opened the door to, another box that went poof. I like the flow of stream of consciousness. I like to find a theme and track it, see where it goes, exploring my own associations, self-discovery toward self-knowledge. A wise man from Nazareth said, affirming Socrates, Know thyself. I have lived my adult life with this goal. I've never thought I had lived with goals. That's on the outside. On the inside, this is my goal. Looking for ways to think outside the box is a part of the process too. I have so settled into seeing "the box" extended unto the unknowable unknown it's not a box anymore. Which puts me at the Dada place: everything goes. I do whatever I do on that playing field. I do what I do; it's what I want to do at the moment. Because I see the box infinite, it's the same as no box.
big sur by tj worthington